Sandpit Psychology - page 2 of 3

Second page of an article on "sandpits" (residential interactive workshops), written by organisational psychologist Bharat Maldé.

The selection route is straightforward. We use a variant of a two-page application form with a small set of open-ended questions to enable us to gain important insights into the applicant. With no intention on our part to trap or wrong-foot the respondent, we expect them to respond just as honestly. Of course, it is not always easy for individuals to post their true colours on an application form as that is not what most of us are brought up to do!

There is also the tendency to respond warmly to questions that are worded positively rather than be entirely honest and balanced. The simple device of a two-page application form does not pick up every important clue - especially when it is not revealed! - but anyone who slips through the net soon gets found out as the intense, pressurised medium of the Sandpit has a way of exposing the hidden, darker side of human nature!

There are also those who realise as the Sandpit unfolds that perhaps they were overly positive about their suitability in the way they presented themselves in their application. As the application numbers now regularly run into well over a hundred, sometimes over two hundred, we have of late coined the term 'tingle test' to represent a final act in a selection decision. Does this application, after all it says and claims, point to an exciting, engaging, interesting individual who falls within the acceptable range of 'not too much, nor too little' of the right ingredients enough to set off a tingle in the assessor?!

The Selection Panel I sit on includes the Sandpit Director and Mentors usually drawn from the Scientific Community with the Director in the Chair. Apart from the EPSRC staff and myself, the Panel is often new to the Sandpit concept. It is a steep learning curve for such panellists to tune into the two-prong brain-and-soul model of selection when the usual measure of scientific merit that they might be more used to would be an examination of career track, research excellence and publications.

It is also difficult for them to grapple with the principle that pre-eminence does not give an automatic right to participate, that so much else has also got to be right. That over and above the right kinds of 'brainware', the participants also have to come with the right soul and spirit.

We have learnt that as long as we succeed in getting the core company of individual's right, then this enables the Facilitators to concentrate on the creative side of the process rather than be distracted by having to manage wayward behaviours or dynamics. We have also been punished when we have taken the eye off the ball and let in participants who are unsuited.

We try and include one or two individuals who do not quite fit the norm but have that special sparkle which might just bring the topic to life. But when we do so, we have to be careful we do not end up picking someone who might become a handful such as a bull-in-a-china shop or a shrinking violet who would need a disproportionate amount of hand-holding. Others unsuited include those who think they are there to fly the flag for their institution or to plug a specialism, those who play to the gallery, and those who are there to fish for what they can take back or those who come merely to beef up their CVs.

From time to time, interesting surprises unfold to make us redouble our efforts to 'get it right'.

In one Sandpit, we did so well at picking affable, positive individuals that no sparks flew and the event risked becoming an extended, happy social activity rather than a stretching but fun intellectual exercise that a Sandpit is.

We are also wary of the opposite end of the spectrum - where alliances are formed and proposals agreed through resorting to Machiavellian behaviour. The IDEAS Factory Sandpit model promotes bonhomie and fair play and every effort is made to ensure that the best ideas prevail and final proposals agreed strictly for their truly creative edge rather than a power play by one or two individuals.